Despite state policy changes, WA schools still disproportionately discipline students of color

The latest data show that while public school discipline rates have been trending downward statewide, disparities persist in who is being punished.

It was long suspected that Washington state schools had a discipline problem.

For decades, districts, schools and individual educators could enforce their own discipline policies. As a result, discipline was poorly tracked and often doled out disproportionately. Students of Black, Native American, and Latino descent, in particular, were suspended and expelled at high rates.

Then, following a 2013 federal investigation into racially disparate rates of suspension of Black students in Seattle, schools were required to report disciplinary data to the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Now observers know that Washington state has a discipline problem and exactly what that problem looks like. Data has shown that Black students across the state have consistently received the most discipline among each racial subgroup since tracking started, followed by Native American students.

The state has made a concerted effort to address the disproportionality. In 2013, the state Legislature ordered OSPI to appoint a task force to create standard definitions for school discipline. The goal was to make disciplinary protocol more uniform.

As a result of the task force’s work, school districts must adopt discipline policies in step with the state’s definitions. These standards aim, in part, to curb subjective discipline referrals, or those that rely on an educator’s interpretation of a child’s behavior, as opposed to more objective referrals for offenses such as violence or drug use.

The task force also found that an overwhelming number of suspensions and expulsions were prompted by attendance-related offenses. These punishments further reduced instructional time for the offending students, which, the group concluded, could worsen the opportunity gap.

In 2013, the Legislature banned use of indefinite suspensions and expulsions in Washington, and laws passed in 2016 placed limitations on long-term suspensions and expulsions. The changes made in 2016 also prohibited the use of indefinite exclusion from the learning environment as a form of punishment. Moreover, districts are responsible for providing instruction to students taken out of the classroom.

OSPI’s discipline task force also reckoned that students who were disciplined were not getting adequate individualized behavior interventions, often resulting in reoffending. The group advised that reducing disparities in discipline would largely require training teachers in techniques such as positive behavior redirection and restorative practices. OSPI then set forth cultural competence standards for educators to help curb the implicit biases that lead to some student groups being disciplined more than others.

The measures appear to be having some effect. Despite enduring racial disproportionality, discipline rates across the state overall have shown mostly steady improvement in the four years following the reporting requirement. However, the state saw a sharp increase in its discipline rate in 2018.

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The new data shows that Washington students are being disciplined at nearly the same rate that they were when OSPI began systematic tracking discipline in 2013. And since 2017, disciplinary instances have spiked by approximately 8 percent.

However, officials at OSPI say better data reporting by schools and changes to what information was factored into the new discipline rate may partially explain the uptick.

Three changes are represented in the 2018 numbers, OSPI spokesperson Karen Conway told Crosscut. These include additional data for emergency expulsions, the factoring out of disciplinary actions taken against pre-kindergarten students, and the exclusion of discipline data for students not enrolled between Sept. 1 and June 1 during the 2017-2018 year.

“For this reason, the [previous data] should not be compared to the [new data],” Conway said in an email statement to Crosscut. “Neither is wrong, but they use slightly different calculation methods.”

More changes to how this data is presented are on the way. School districts are now required to report to OSPI aggregate discipline data that includes ethnic and racial subgroups, as well as students’ homelessness status and grade level. This additional information has yet to be published publicly but is slated to be added to current data before the end of the calendar year.

An earlier version of this story stated that new data showed that students in Washington State are being disciplined more than they were when OSPI began systematic tracking in 2013 and that the rate of discipline has spiked by approximately 26 percent since 2017.

However, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction reached out to Crosscut following the publication of this story with new discipline data for 2014 to 2018, citing an error in its calculation of previously provided data. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Jen Dev

Jen Dev

Jen Dev is formerly a video producer at Crosscut and KCTS 9, where she focused on race and immigration issues.

Liz Brazile

Liz Brazile

Liz Brazile is formerly an emerging journalist fellow at Crosscut, where she focused on public education in Seattle and Washington State.

Chelsea Lee

Chelsea Lee is a front end developer at Crosscut and KCTS 9.